Call to governments to give OPCAT powers to oversight bodies

WARNING: the content of this blog may cause distress for some readers

Written by Guardian and Training Centre Visitor, Shona Reid

You will all be aware of intense media and public interest in the current fraught situation in youth justice detention across Australia. Recent problems in Tasmania, Western Australia and the Northern Territory tells a terrible tale that is difficult to comprehend. Vulnerable children and young people, who have often lived through incredible trauma, have been deprived of their liberty, subjected to racism and physical and emotional abuse, and being left to feel alone, humiliated and hurt.  

How could things get this bad? 

How can governments and the community so badly fail them? 

Why do we continue to tolerate the gross overrepresentation in custody of Aboriginal children and young people, those with serious psychosocial and neurodevelopmental issues, as well as those living within the child protection system?   

My recently released Training Centre Visitor Annual Report discusses the 2021-22 situation in Kurlana Tapa Youth Justice Centre in some detail.  The report highlights my concerns about the safety and wellbeing of children and young people detained there. And, as raised in my office’s South Australian Dual Involved project’s final report released in July of this year, it discusses the lack of child-safe oversight when children and young people are held in police cells – an event that is sadly more common than we realised with children held in adult cells for undetermined periods of time. Yes, it happens here in South Australia; yes it happens here in our towns, our cities and our suburbs.

Which brings me to OPCAT. Have you heard about it? Did you know about it? 

In 2017, the Australian Government signed an international agreement to undertake independent inspections of all places where people are detained. This agreement, the ‘Optional Protocol to the (United Nations) Convention Against Torture’, known as OPCAT, will come into force next month. 

The aim of OPCAT is to prevent abuse or mistreatment of people who are detained in places like prisons, youth detention centres and police cells, or who are unable to leave areas like secure wards in hospitals or mental health or disability facilities. 

So, it’s here for everyone, those who have committed crime, those who are innocent until proven guilty, and those who are in medical care and not subject to any criminal proceedings.

Independent OPCAT oversight will monitor such places to ensure that detainees are treated in a respectful and humane way, that they are not subject to illegal deprivation of their liberty and do not experience breaches of basic human rights.

The OPCAT function is essentially the first line of protection to prevent the torture, illegal treatment and even death of people in deprivation of liberty settings. It is an essential part of a well-functioning and accountable system. 


  • Five years after the Australian Government ratified OPCAT (in 2017) we are no closer to having an oversight and operational framework for enacting the OPCAT protocol.
  • Five years after the Australian and South Australian Governments agreed to work together (in 2017), they are still arguing about money and who is paying for OPCAT oversight.
  • Five years after discussions commenced in South Australia (in 2017) about how it best can be implemented in this state, we have no enabling legislation and nor do I (as a nominated oversight body) have the human resource and financial capacity to undertake the preventive oversight role for detained children and young people to the international standard that is required by OPCAT.

And, perhaps not remarkably, Australian governments have now been embarrassed internationally for failing to embrace this core human rights commitment.  A week ago in Geneva, the United Nations Committee Against Torture met and made its displeasure clear, stating that “the Committee is seriously concerned that the establishment of an independent, effective and well-resourced NPM network across all the jurisdictions of the State party [Australia] is not yet achieved. The committee is also concerned by the general lack of funding for those visiting bodies already set up across the country” as well as insufficient guarantees about our “functional and operational independence”.

With only 8 weeks left until Independent OPCACT oversight is meant to begin we are not ready, because the necessary work has simply not been done and completed.  My office continues to provide information and advice on proposals and the need for appropriate oversight function. This has been forth coming from my office from 2017 to this current day. 

What now? Members of the National Preventive Mechanism (NPM) Network are so concerned that we have called on all Australian governments to 

  1. appoint NPMs (any body or person that undertakes the visits, inspects places of detention and reports to the UN Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture)
  2. legislate NPM role and powers
  3. resource NPMs to fully discharge their mandate to carry out visits to places of detention, including youth justice centres, to help prevent harm to children and young people.

Please take the time to read our joint statement here.

Lastly, it is important to remember a few things:

  1. This topic is important because it attests to who we are as a society. How do we treat and provide safeguards for all vulnerable, detained people? 
  2. OPCAT protects all of us – those in prison, those waiting for their proceedings to go to court, those who haven’t been charged with crimes, those seeking medical attention and those living in supported environments.
  3. Children and young people walk and live within all these settings, and they need all of us to look out for them especially in settings where their freedom has been taken away and they are subject to restraints and discipline.

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